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May 22, 2000

The Daily Prospectus

Two Pitchers

by Joe Sheehan

Read the material here at BP.com for any length of time and you'll notice certain themes running through the writing. One of the ones we're known to pound incessantly is the idea that pitchers, especially young ones, need to be handled carefully. Rany Jazayerli's Pitcher Abuse Points system is an outgrowth of that belief and a step toward quantifying workloads.

Our incessant pounding of this point occasionally causes some of the subtleties to fall through the cracks. A major one is that there is a significant difference between what you can demand of a young pitcher and what you can demand of an older one. While the PAP system accounts for this, we don't always emphasize the point enough in our writing. The threshold for "abuse" creeps upward as a pitcher gets older.

On Sunday, two pitchers at different points in their careers threw more than 130 pitches. Their performances help to illustrate the differences in evaluating pitcher usage. In Chicago, the Cubs' Kevin Tapani, 36, threw 135 pitches in falling just shy of a complete game. Tapani had thrown 121 pitches threw eight innings of a shutout, and went to the mound in the ninth inning with no one throwing behind him. Given the nightmare that the Cubs' pen has been, this wasn't surprising. On the heels of Ismael Valdes's 125-pitch outing Friday, it appears that Don Baylor is going to ride his starters. Hard.

Was the outing abusive? Well, Tapani picks up 80 Pitcher Abuse Points, so it certainly will hurt his PAP stats. But Tapani is 36 and physically mature. He will not have his Workload score adjusted in the PAP system because of his advanced age, a reflection of that maturity. And there was a clear purpose to letting him throw that many pitches. The game was close and even a tired Tapani may have been better than the other options. Despite the high pitch count, it's hard for me to indict Baylor in this instance.

At around the same time the Cubs were wrapping up the win, the Giants were putting up a 10-run sixth inning against the Brewers, taking a 16-5 lead. The Giants' Russ Ortiz had shown signs of fatigue: after retiring the first nine batters, he'd allowed five runs on six hits in the fourth and fifth innings. Still, he'd thrown just 92 pitches, so Dusty Baker sent him out for the sixth. He allowed a leadoff home run to Jose Hernandez, then retired three more batters. His pitch count at this point? 103.

Top of the seventh, the Giants have a ten-run lead, Ortiz has given up runs in three straight innings, is now over 100 pitches and will bat third in this inning. Seems like a good time to let Aaron Fultz get some work, no? The Giants had used one relief pitcher (Ben Weber) for one inning on Saturday, and Monday would be an off-day.

Ortiz batted and struck out. He then went to the mound and proceeded to throw 29 pitches and be charged with four more runs, becoming the first pitcher in 46 years to win a game in which he allowed ten runs. His pitch count for the game? 132. Sure, it's three fewer pitches than Tapani threw, but:

  • Ortiz is 26, whereas Tapani is 36.

  • Ortiz had given up six runs in his previous three innings. Tapani took a shutout into the ninth.

  • The Giants were up ten runs, and unless they traded for Keith Osik, had pretty much no shot to lose the game. The Cubs were very much in danger of losing.

  • Ortiz has a history of high-pitch-count starts, and the opportunity to get him a win without extending him too deeply should have been taken.

There's another issue here over and above whether it was prudent for either of these guys to throw this many pitches. When you're dealing with a younger pitcher, the potential cost of an injury is much greater, both to the team and to the hurler. If we overemphasize the workloads of younger pitchers, it 's in part because we acknowledge that those pitchers are the ones who have the most to lose. They don't have millions in the bank and they don't have the experience or the security to say, "Hey, Skip, I think I'm done for the day."

Dusty Baker's handling of Russ Ortiz since the beginning of last season has been questionable. But about what he did yesterday, there can be no question. It was pitcher abuse at its worst.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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